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With King's Support, Thai Coup Leader Could Win Support of People


General Sondhi Boonyaratglin, leader of this week's military coup in Thailand, was made Thai army commander last year by the man he has now thrown out of power, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He was never part of Mr. Thaksin's inner circle, but he is thought to have the support of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has given his blessing to the takeover.

Last year, General Sondhi Boonyaratglin publicly denied any political ambitions by the military, saying the military coups that Thailand has endured so often were bad for the country.

But as allegations of corruption and abuse of power paralyzed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and led to political stalemate, General Sondhi told a newspaper the crisis was worrying King Bhumibol Adulyadej. "As a soldier of his Majesty," Sondhi was quoted as saying, "I would like to relieve him of his worry."

Panitan Wattanayagorn political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, says Sondhi's clean record and modest demeanor will help Sondhi gain public support for his overthrow of Mr. Thaksin.

"Of course with his clean reputation, his soft manner, soft spoken manner, and seemingly he has the trust of the people in Thailand," he said.

Sondhi's avowed respect for the king, and the king's explicit support for Sondhi's actions, should also help. The day of the coup, Sondhi and his fellow generals were given an audience by the king, who is held in veneration in Thailand.

Later, a statement by the king was read on television, saying the people should remain peaceful, and civil servants "should listen orders from General Sondhi."

Unlike previous coup leaders, Sondhi has displayed no political ambitions. He told the nation on Wednesday he would act as head of the government only for the next two weeks, until a civilian can be found to take over as interim prime minister. He said new elections would be held in November of 2007.

Professor Panitan thinks Sondhi's apparent lack of political ambition will also help the people to trust him.

"He also, in the past at least, doesn't have a history of violations of democratic principles, and he's also seemingly not wanting to rule or to assume the political role in the past," said Mr. Panitan. "This could perhaps help him to finally, in the end, put Thailand back on track."

Sondhi, a Muslim in a mostly Buddhist nation, was appointed commander-in-chief of the army last year. Muslim militancy in Southern Thailand has left more than 1,400 people dead in the past three years, and Sondhi's appointment was seen as a move by Mr. Thaksin to appease the largely Muslim population of the region.

But Sondhi, 59, came to the job with a distinguished military record. He graduated from Thailand's Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy in 1969, and was decorated in the Vietnam War. He has headed top army units including the elite Special Warfare Command.

After his appointment, there were reports of disagreement between Sondhi and Mr. Thaksin on how to handle the situation in the South. Mr. Thaksin has been accused of using heavy-handed tactics to put down the violence, which has become steadily worse.

Some Muslims from the region were quoted Thursday as saying that with Mr. Thaksin out of the way, they thought General Sondhi might make headway towards an end to the violence.

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